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Warning Against Eating Meat Has Chinese Olympians Off Their Game

Chinese volleyball player Yunwen Ma during a game between China and Germany, at the Montreux Volley Masters women tournament, in Montreux, Switzerland, in 2011.
EPA /Landov
Chinese volleyball player Yunwen Ma during a game between China and Germany, at the Montreux Volley Masters women tournament, in Montreux, Switzerland, in 2011.

It's no longer Meat Week here on The Salt (we are deep into Pie Week, in case you haven't noticed). But that doesn't mean we can't flag a good meat story when we see one.

According to several Chinese media reports, the coach of the Chinese women's Olympic volleyball team got pretty bent out of shape this week over his players' losses in the 2012 FIVB World Grand Prix finals, which wrapped up Sunday in Ningbo, China.

The cause of the slump? The players hadn't eaten any meat in three weeks, according to the coach. The volleyball team had been on the road, so they didn't have access to the specially sourced meat they eat at their training base.

The team normally gets its meat from suppliers who can guarantee it isn't tainted with clenbuterol. That's an additive in animal feed, known as lean meat powder, that's also considered a performance-enhancing drug by the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency.

"[The players] have showed significant decline in their strength and fitness," Yu Juemin, the coach, told Beijing News after China lost in three sets to the United States on Sunday. "We dared not eat pork when we come out of our training camp for the tournament because we are afraid of clenbuterol."

Back in March, Chinese Olympians were instructed to avoid all Beijing restaurants out of fear of possible clenbuterol doping. Some 50 percent of meat consumed in Beijing is said to contain the chemical.

As Allison Aubrey explored in her story last week, humans have evolved to eat meat and it's a big part of what makes us human. But the Chinese coach's fears made us wonder just how much an athlete's performance might depend on their meat consumption.

According to one Chinese sports medicine doctor, high-intensity training and competition does require meat.

"Athletes ... definitely must consume enough animal protein from lean meat such as beef, mutton and pork, more so than ordinary people," said Zhao Jisheng, an associate professor at the College of PE and Sports at Beijing Normal University.

But it seems there are also a lot of world-class vegetarian athletes out there, according to this slideshow we found on Among the superstars who forgo meat are tennis player Martina Navratilova, basketball player Robert Parish, and football player Tony Gonzalez. We also know that there probably isn't one ideal diet for everyone, athlete or not.

Of course, Olympic athletes aren't the only ones in China who get special access to "clean" food: There are also organic farms designated for Chinese astronauts and high-ranking officials. Though eliminating chemicals like clenbuterol from the food supply is an increasingly high priority for Chinese food safety officials, they still have a long way to go.

"The fact that only top athletes have access to healthy meat products reflects how grave our food safety problem has become," said Li Youyou, a Beijing resident told Global Times.

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